Plato v. Art: cage match

In book 10 of the Republic, Plato goes on one of his more extended rants against artists. His final target appears to be Homer. His first issue is that artists are always three steps from the truth. They make copies of copies. So, a painter paints a chair, but he doesn’t know how to build one. A chair builder builds a chair from an image in his mind. So we move from (#1) ideal image to (#2) chair builder to (#3) artist making a copy of a copy.

Worse yet, artists are often exploring unseemly ideas and the dark corners of human life. We watch someone accidentally kill his father and marry his mother on stage. In life, we would be disgusted to hear about such a thing if a person was actually telling us this. Sometimes artists explore comic issues too. We go to the theatre and are greatly amused by “jests which you would be ashamed to make yourself” and are “not at all disgusted at their unseemliness”.

Well, Plato, it had a good beat, so I wasn’t really paying attention to the lyrics.

Artists are crafty and dangerous folk, and people working on setting up an orderly society are quite right to be concerned. For Plato, art tended to emphasize “pleasure and pain” instead of “law and reason”. Exposing yourself to public displays of art made it more difficult to control your own “pleasure and pain” and more difficult to follow “law and reason”. This is where he brings up two points that I find fascinating and relevant today.

He says, “Few persons ever reflect, as I should imagine, that from the evil of other men something of evil is communicated to themselves.” It is quite easy to dismiss this today. We can argue that some old-school, stuffed-shirt Republican is getting all worked up over the N.W.A, and that they shouldn’t be taken seriously. The danger here is in how you make the argument. For me, the people that crusade against certain forms of artistic expression have at least one fantastic thing in their favor. They believe in the power of art to change lives. So, when some defend the N.W.A. by saying, “It’s no big deal,” I tend to disagree. It is a big deal. Art is always a big deal. I disagree with the censors, but not with their belief in the power of the work. Fortunately, I do not have the power of censorship. If so, there would be some things quickly banned. 1. The music of Andrew Lloyd Weber 2. Jeans skirts 3. The color yellow would not be available for advertisers to place on streets. That’s just a start.

A second passage that I find incredibly intriguing goes to the “people love crap” argument that I hear so often. Plato says that when artists are imitating (that is making a copy of a copy), they find that it is much easier to imitate terrible things. It is easier for an artist to present lust, greed, anger, cruelty etc. It is harder for an artist to present a “wise and calm temperament” because it is harder to imitate, and it is harder for a “promiscuous crowd” that is “assembled in a theatre” to appreciate it because “the feeling represented is one to which they are strangers.” There’s the rub! Peoples are nasty things, and they never felt no good, rational, and law-abiding feelings ‘fore now. So when they sees um, they jes don’ know how t’ relate.

Hmmm. Plato knows lots of stuff. At least he had a good handle on what people would be arguing about for the next 2500 years. I’m thinking that he should have written a play about a philosopher that became a playwright and was kicked out of his own Republic. We could get Kenau Reeves to play Plato and Justin Bieber could be a young Aristotle running around trying to save him.

Labels: , ,